Jwaneng, Botswana - With two teams tied at the top of the overall championship and one point separating them in the class standings, the Production Vehicle category is set to provide high drama at the Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race, round four of the SA Cross Country Championship, from 27-29 June.
The two factory teams - reigning champions and last year's race winners Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy (Team Toyota Hilux) and Manfred Schroder and Japie Badenhorst (Ford Racing Ranger) are locked together in the overall championship. In the Class T battle Schroder and Badenhorst lead the Toyota crew by a single point.
The only marathon event on the Cross Country calendar carries double points, making it a high-stakes race for both the championship leaders - with the opportunity to go into the second half of the season in a strong position - and the rest of a high quality field, where a rich haul of points can breathe new life into flagging title hopes.
Between them Taylor and Murphy, and Schroder and Badenhorst have done all the winning so far. The Toyota crew has two wins, with a non-finish to blot their copybook, and both teams will be among the pre-race favourites.
Taylor and Murphy will have back-up from team-mates Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie, as well as privateers Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau, who have shown patchy form up to now, and will be keen to put pressure on the leaders.
A third works Toyota Hilux entry will see Brazilians Reinaldo Varela and Gustavo Gugelmin - whose Dakar Rally experience should help them adapt to Botswana conditions - bring an international flavour to proceedings.
Johan and Werner Horn (Toyota Hilux) have a golden opportunity to prove that two podium finishes in their first three Class T outings were no flash in the pan; they have fond memories of a race that gave them their first national victory when they were campaigning in Class D.
Nissan Navara crew Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson will be keen to build on their third place on the Nkomazi 450, and have a reliability record that suggests they can get the job done, as do rival Navara entries Mike Whitehouse and George Myburgh, and Terence Marsh and rugby legend Stefan Terblanche, as well as Sarel van Biljon and Philip Herselman (Toyota Hilux), coming off two solid performances.
At the other end of the scale youngsters Jason Venter and Vincent van Allemann (Toyota Hilux) will be out to turn around a disappointing start to their Class T career, as will Ford Ranger pair Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Janse van Vuuren, after a string of wretched results.
In Class S a single point separates Deon Venter and Ian Palmer (Toyota Hilux) and Bloemfontein crew Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling in a diesel Ford Ranger. Venter and Palmer have notched up two wins in a row, but De Bruin and Greyling are the only Class S team with a 100 percent finish record - and that might give them the edge.
Archie Rutherford and Gerhard Schutte (Nissan Navara) will be high on confidence after two solid results, while North West veterans Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux (Toyota Hilux) will be the crew to watch; a lot of smart money will be on the former South African champions.
As the season reaches the halfway mark two father-and-son teams are threatening to walk away with the series. Gerhard and Hardus du Plessis (Jimco) will go to Botswana with a nine-point lead over former South African champions Quintin and Kallie Sullwald (BAT Venom) with third placed Daniel Brookes and Gavan Gray (BAT) a further 20 points off the pace.
Among those who will be looking for the extra points on offer to resuscitate their championship challenge will be reigning champions Evan Hutchison and Danie Stassen (BAT Viper), and former champions Hermann and Wichard Sullwald in their Porter Stryker.
Hutchison and Stassen, after two consecutive DNFs, trail Du Plessis and his teenage son, Hardus, by a whopping 40 points. Lance Trethewey and Geoff Minnitt (BAT) are another four points in arrears and for Hermann and Wichard Sullwald it is perhaps a last throw of the championship dice.
WAR OF ATTRITION
The Sullwalds last year what turned out into a war of attrition, with some major surprises. It took the Sullwalds to the top of the championship table, but a horrid finish to the series put an end to their title hopes.
For the Desert Race the Sullwalds will swap roles with Wichard taking over driving duties from his father - although this may be a drawback. Start positions for the qualifying race are determined on a driver seeding, and the Sullwalds will find themselves starting way down the field.
Mark Corbett and Juan Mohr, in the new Century Racing CR5, will top the list of 'outsiders'. Corbett is a former Desert Race winner but the fickle nature of new race machinery could be a problem for him.
Local interest in Class A will come from Keith du Toit - on the podium last year - and Xander Mare (BAT) and Mogrey Mabille who will again be partnered by Zelda Niemandt, in their first outing of the season.
Reigning champions John Thomson and Maurice Zermatten, in a Zarco, were third overall in Botswana last year. They have a healthy lead in the championships - and the sort of reliability record that breeds success in Botswana. They'll also benefit from the absence of second-placed Rob Wark, a former overall winner of the Desert Race, who will sit out this year.
But there's no shortage of challengers with Colin Matthews and Rodney Burke the standout crew in the Century Racing CR3. None of the other Class P entries can match Matthews for sheer pace but that is a commodity, on its own, that is not going to win the Desert Race.
Major opposition will come from KwaZulu-Natal crew James Watson and John Thompson (BAT), and the Zarcos of brothers Keith and Andrew Makenete, Nic Goslar and Andrew Massey, and father-and-daughter crew Coetzee and Sandra Labuscagne, who are due a good result.
Two local crews - Thulani Dube and Don Mahlanza (Zarco) and Asante Sebego and Onkabetse Keletso (Sandmaster) - will have passionate support from local enthusiasts.
Race headquarters has been moved from Kumakwane to Jwaneng, about 160km west of Gaborone and the route is completely new, although the terrain will still be "typically Botswana" with plenty of thick sand, bushes and trees.
For competitors in the Class G or Side by Side category it is going to be hard work. They'll qualify over a 60km prologue course, and will then complete one loop of the approximately 450 kilometre route on Day 2 and Day 3.
Championship leaders Brian Capper and Jaco Swart (Polaris) will start as pre-race favourites with tough challenges coming from Leander Pienaar and Stephan Marais (Can-Am Maverick) and Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer in another Polaris.
Competitors in the other Production Vehicle classes will complete two laps of approximately 225km and 190km respectively, with a compulsory 15-minute pit-stop at the end of the first loop each day.
WHERE AND WHEN
Race headquarters, the start/finish and the designated service point will all be located at the Jwaneng sports complex and adjoining showground area. Public entry to these areas will be restricted, but there will be free entry to spectator points along the route.
The qualifying race to determine grid positions will start at 11.30am on Friday 27 June; Day 2 and Day 3 of the race proper will start at 8am on 28 and 29 June.